Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Billerica solar firm could close by January

From Lowell Sun - Schott Solar Inc. has notified its 220 employees in Billerica that its manufacturing plant on Suburban Park Drive could close as soon as January.
Marc Roper, Schott's vice president of sales and marketing, told The Sun that the decision has not yet been made. The company is required by law to notify employees within 60 days of the plant closing, he said.
Roper said the company is being hurt by a worldwide shortage of silicon, a key component in the manufacture of solar modules. Schott is trying to find either a new silicon supplier or someone to buy the plant. If those efforts prove unsuccessful, the plant will close in January or February, Roper said.
"There's at least one very interested potential buyer," Roper said. "It's not time to throw in the hat, that's for sure. We're all very hopeful."
Schott Solar is a subsidiary of the German company Schott Solar GmbH (itself a subsidiary of glass company Schott AG), which has four manufacturing plants in Europe. The Billerica plant would be shut down because it is the oldest and least efficient of Schott Solar GmbH's facilities, Roper said.
"From a global perspective, we do have silicon to run some of our facilities, but not all of our facilities," Roper said.
The silicon shortage has been a problem for at least three years, said Jim Walker, managing director for energy at Waltham-based forecasting firm Global Insight.
"The industry is growing so quickly that (silicon) manufacturing capacity can't keep up with it," he said.
Walker pointed out that while some companies have been hurt by the shortage, others -- particularly in Massachusetts -- have taken advantage of the situation. Konarka Technologies and Stellaris, both based in Lowell, and Marlboro-based Evergreen Solar are all developing technology to produce solar modules using much less silicon, Walker said.
Roper said Schott Solar is still bullish on the American solar market and intends to re-establish a presence on this side of the pond within two years, if the Billerica plant ends up closing. In the meantime, Schott would supply North and South America with solar modules manufactured in Europe.
The Billerica facility currently manufactures solar cells and panels for commercial and residential customers, mostly in California and New Jersey.
Roper said Schott will do what it can to retrain and relocate its Billerica employees, but the company does not have another plant close by. The company has manufacturing facilities in Pennsylvania and New York, he said.
Employees were given notice of the situation on Nov. 16, but Roper said he hopes it was just a false alarm.
"The company would definitely not like to do this," he said.

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